It seemed like the moment the entire crowd at the AmeriHealth Pavilion were anticipating at Saturday’s Red-White scrimmage. Pavel Zacha, the New Jersey Devils‘ 2015 first round pick, retrieved a loose puck at center ice and appeared to have a clear breakaway on goal. Suddenly the whistle blew to signal an offside on one of Zacha’s teammates who was still in the offensive zone. While the fans serenaded the referee with a chorus of boos, Zacha bent over disappointed with a smirk on his face.
“I was just laughing because I did not see the guys there offside. I was just trying to skate thinking what I would do to the goalie, but then I heard the whistle and thought, ‘what happened there,’” he said. “But it was a solid game. This is just one part of it.”
The Devils’ development camp was just one of the first steps Zacha is experiencing on his path to becoming a professional hockey player. Throughout the week, the organization focused on developing the players’ on-ice skills as well as their off-ice chemistry together. The development camp also taught the younger prospects like Zacha about the everyday routine of a pro lifestyle. One aspect Zacha was fond of was having equipment managers handling his gear. Yet nothing came close to putting on his own professional jersey.
“Just when I put that jersey on with the New Jersey logo on, it was the best feeling you could have as a player,” Zacha said. “It was just practice but I loved wearing it. I hope I can wear it all season.”
Not long after he was drafted in Sunrise, Florida, Zacha received a phone call from his idol and countryman, Patrick Elias. Zacha said it was ‘probably the best talk of my life to talk with a star who was my idol all my life’.
“He was there for so long. It’s nice to have someone like him who can take care of me a little bit. He told me we will meet here and he will talk more. He congratulated me, told me to work hard before [training] camp because it will be hard there. He told me he hoped I made the team there.”
The Czech Republic native was happy with his decision to come to North America to play for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL last season as it helped him adjust to the speed of the North American style as well as learn more of the English language. One part he did not seem fazed by was the physicality of the game. The 6’3”, 210-pound forward feels using his size is part of his game, but does not want it to distract him from scoring.
“I want to be the guy that scores goals, makes points and helps the team win the game,” said the newly-drafted center. “I am not afraid to hit but I am not looking to hit people.”
During conversations with Zacha this week, he came off as a bright character. His youthful excitement boasted through his voice, but you could feel a sense of maturity and commitment in his tone. The Czech Republic native displayed that throughout the week and left an impression on Devils management.
“I thought he was fantastic,” Devils general manager Ray Shero said. “That was the feedback we gave him today. I think that was from the entire staff. Very professional, very mature. He roomed with Damon Severson this week and they were really good together, but I think Pavel passed that on as well in terms of getting to know everybody here whether it was a draft pick or a tryout or just really dealing with people. So, I thought he did a real good job on and off the ice.”
“He’s had a whirlwind, really, prior to the draft when you’re going to go that high with the combine and the draft and then afterwards,” Devils’ head coach John Hynes said. “Just the way he represents himself, he’s a real character kid. He fits in with the group. He doesn’t expect or want preferential treatment. He’s very coachable. His work ethic, I think you could see it in probably the two sessions that were open to the public, that he works and he’s a good team guy and you saw that whether people are around or not.
“So, we’re really proud of him just in the fact of his work ethic and who he is and we feel that though he’s a young prospect that’s had a lot of attention and a whirlwind summer so far, he’s very levelheaded and grounded and he’s taking it all in stride and now it’s nice for him to be able to step back and get away from the limelight or hockey. Just really focus on his training and getting himself prepared for September.”
The players stayed in a hotel throughout rookie camp as a way to build team chemistry off the rink. Zacha ended up in a room with Severson, the most experienced prospect at the camp with 51 NHL games played in his rookie season. Aside from watching Fast and Furious and plenty of Family Feud, Zacha felt he learned a lot from picking Severson’s brain on what to expect transitioning to the NHL.
“We were chilling in the room a lot because there was not much to do around the hotel. We just chilled and I asked him a lot of questions about, ‘How is it in the NHL? How are the guys there?’ He shared some experiences he had with me. I talked to him all the time. Any questions I had he answered and gave me exactly what I wanted to hear. It was great to be with him.”
One notable tidbit he learned from Severson and the off-ice workshops was the importance of nutritious eating habits.
“I never thought too much about eating healthy and stuff like that but now I see I need to eat healthy,” said Zacha. “He told me a lot of things about it. He looked at NHL players and they do not know what to eat, when to eat. That’s what I learned a lot here and I will bring it with me [going forward] to eat as well as I can.”
Whether he wants the designation or not, Zacha is the face of this new era in Devils hockey. He is the first potential star forward developing in the system in a long time and represents the kind of player Shero and Hynes are looking for. Contract negotiations are ongoing between the player and club, yet it remains to be seen if Zacha will be in a Devils uniform for the 2015-16 season. The lessons he has learned from rookie camp will help him in his journey into the professional ranks.
“I came here and I didn’t know what to think about from camp. There were so many things: I talked with the coaches, we had so many things we did on the ice, so many practices off-ice too, like workouts, trying to build our speed,” said Zacha. “There are so many things we can take away from this camp. I will try to think about it as much as I can.”
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